The Wisconsin dairy industry, challenged in numerous ways, remains an inescapable presence in the state — from the remaining number of small family farms dotting the landscape from county to county to the sprawling mega-farms housing thousands of cows.
Not as apparent, though, is the moneymaking magnitude of a business sector that contributes nearly $44 billion annually to the state’s economy. And, industry experts say, with that powerful economic punch comes the need for continued research to fuel the dairy industry.
“It’s really scary how few people in Wisconsin really know the impact that the dairy industry has on the entire state,” said Chad Vincent, CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, which is the marketing and promotion arm of the state’s dairy farmers.
The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a bill introduced late last month by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green; Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City; and 26 other Republicans that asks the state to spend $7.9 million a year to fund dairy research at three UW-System campuses.
Proponents say the bill is aimed specifically at improving every aspect of the struggling dairy industry.
It calls for all-encompassing research to take place at a Dairy Innovation Hub within the campuses of UW-Madison, UW-River Falls and UW-Platteville, with a goal of finding solutions to problems that have frustrated the industry and its critics for decades.
The hub includes four research spokes:
- Improving the industry’s negative effects on the environment.
- Protecting the health and welfare of cows.
- Enhancing health and nutritional benefits for people.
- Strengthening the industry’s businesses and the rural communities in which they are located.
“It’s about how do we produce whatever amount of milk we need more efficiently — with less manure, less land resources needed, less methane — without damaging the water supply,” said Kent Weigel, chairman of the dairy science department at UW-Madison.
“It’s about doing it in a way that the consumer finds acceptable.”
Plans also include an academy that would provide dairy professionals throughout the state with ongoing training to keep them updated on new technology and other industry information.
Marklein believes the research hub would strengthen Wisconsin’s leadership position within the global dairy market. “I think it’s going to be a way to reinvigorate our dairy industry and, if nothing else, to let our industry know that we haven’t forgotten them,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, said some in his caucus think Marklein jumped the gun with his proposal. Smith, a first-term senator, said he was unaware that Marklein was working on the legislation, even though Smith is on the Committee for Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, which Marklein chairs.
“It would have been nice to have been given a heads-up and an opportunity to work with him on it,” said Smith. “The expectation was that something like this should come out of a task force that was bipartisan.”
Beacon of hope
Shelly Mayer, a Washington County dairy farmer and the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, called the bill a “beacon of hope” at a time when the industry — and the world — most needs it.
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“When we start talking about water and soil health and food safety and animal health and all of that, we’re not just talking about how it affects dairy, that’s all of us,” she said.
A reduced number of faculty researchers has made it difficult for dairy research at UW-Madison to keep pace with the growth of the industry. Budget cuts within the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and UW-Extension are the culprit, according to CALS senior associate dean Richard Straub.
However, CALS’ funding for the Center for Dairy Research also has been declining since 1999-2000, even though state money the college received for all of its research went up during that period, UW budget data show.
Vincent, from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, said he has grown frustrated with UW-Madison’s refusal to spend more money on dairy research. That includes not filling positions or buying equipment needed for the CDR’s $47 million addition that the state is helping finance.
“I look at the UW and I hope they want to be known as a dairy university,” Vincent said. “But there’s this huge business school and all this other stuff there. And sometimes I wonder if dairy isn’t quite as sexy for them as they would hope it to be. I mean, there’s a lot of competing forces in terms of resources in the state.”
Mayer said UW System President Ray Cross has sent mixed signals about using state funding for the Dairy Innovation Hub since he was first made aware of the idea in 2017. While he has told dairy leaders and others that he understands the importance of the dairy industry to the state and the need to make a reinvestment, Cross has not put any of the System’s available state funds toward it, she said.
In a statement, UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said, “President Cross worked closely with dairy leaders and lawmakers to help craft this legislation. He recognizes the importance of the dairy industry to the state of Wisconsin.
“In recent years, the UW System has faced challenges seeking funding for a wide array of worthy projects and programs,” Pitsch said. “President Cross will happily work with the Legislature and the governor to secure additional funding to support the dairy hub.”
Marklein wants the UW System to do more than just talk. The bill he authored orders the Board of Regents and UW System to use the $7.9 million annually specifically to fill more than 60 positions and handle infrastructure needs for the hub at all three campus sites.
“The institutions, the campuses need to recognize the importance of dairy and that dairy needs to be a priority for their ag departments,” Marklein said.
Mayer cautioned that while people from around the world continue to look to Wisconsin for its food industry and leadership related to dairy, other countries are poised to pass it by.
“As a dairy farmer, I rely on new discoveries and new research so I can continue to do things better. It’s as simple as that,” Mayer said.
After the UW System declined to fund the Dairy Innovation Hub starting in 2017, it was introduced as the signature recommendation for long-range improvements of the dairy industry from a group of state dairy leaders and farmers earlier this year. Vincent and Mayer were among the 31 voting members of the group called the Dairy Task Force 2.0. Cross was one of eight non-voting governmental members on the panel.
Gov. Tony Evers and Brad Pfaff, the new secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, have supported the recommendation made by the group.
Marklein’s bill closely follows the group’s recommendation that includes creating positions for 25 faculty members in the four spokes of the research hub, as well as 20 graduate students, 16 post-doctoral fellows and five staffers. UW-Madison would receive 52 percent of the funding while UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls would each receive 24 percent.